Inside Out: the human rights implications of imprisonment

(Annual Human Rights Conference)

Incorporated Law Society, Dublin,

7th October 2017


Probation, Prison and Human Rights

Vivian Geiran

Probation Service Director

Thank you Minister Flanagan. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I want to say a few words by way of introduction, regarding the role of the Probation Service, in the context of probation itself, as well as of prisons, prisoners and human rights. I also want to say a little about what our values are and where they come from, why we respect and take account of human rights in our work, and also consider the implications of this for our practice and for society as a whole, in the context of todays conference.



The Probation Service is an agency of the Department of Justice and Equality. Our two main areas of work are: the assessment of offenders (primarily for the Courts), and the supervision and rehabilitation of offenders, in order to help create safer, fairer and more inclusive communities. We have 400 staff, mainly in community based office locations across all the 26 counties. We also have probation staff working in all of the prisons in the State. Every day we are supervising over 8,000 offenders in the community, as well as working with around 1,500 of the three and a half thousand people in prison on any day, preparing them for re-integration into their communities. In a nutshell, Probation staff are change agents for good, helping offenders to become ex- offenders. . We are successful in that role, of reducing reoffending, as measured each year by the Central Statistics Office. I want to acknowledge the support of Minister Flanagan, and his Ministerial colleagues, and his Department, in what we do, every day.



The role of the Probation Service is to manage Court orders, reduce risk of harm and the likelihood of reoffending by offenders, and to help make good the harm caused by crime. My final presentation slide today will contain details regarding where you can get further information on the Probation Service. We also have an information desk at todays conference, and staff who are in a position to deal with any questions you may have about our work.



In approaching our work, we recognise that, although we work primarily with offenders, there are other stakeholders clearly affected when a crime is committed. In essence, crime and offending represents, and results, in a damaged or indeed a broken relationship between the offender, their victim or victims, and the wider community.




The Probation Service is an organisation founded and based in social work values. Most of our probation officers are social work trained.

Our professional values are based therefore on those of social work, and incorporate fundamental human rights principles. We are required, as professionals, to operate within those standards and boundaries, in relation to everyone with whom we deal. We do of course operate under various pieces of legislation, a number of which deal specifically with human rights that must be upheld and implemented, in respect of staff and partner organizations, offenders, victims and everyone with whom we interact. As well as our Constitution and Irish law, instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights, and other instruments of so-called soft law,’ influence how we behave and organise; what we do and how we do it. These include a number of international requirements and standards such as EU Framework Decisions, and the Council of Europes European Probation Rules and the European Rules on Community Sanctions and Measures, as well as the European Prison Rules. In addition, we have well- established organisational and public service standards, including particularly those covering general standards of customer service. We have also, for example, committed recently to be one of the initial pilot organisations to develop and implement our public sector duty to equality and human rights under the provisions of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act, 2014.


So, to some extent, we take into account, abide by, and operate on the basis of, established human rights principles, because we have to, on the basis of legislative and other requirements. But one of the main points I want to make today is that we should take the issue of human rights, in relation to those we deal with, specifically offenders, very seriously, not only because we have to. Human rights are not just a nice to have’ ideal. It is my contention that doing what we do in a human rights-based way helps us to be more effective in fostering desistance from crime among our client group. In that way, human rights is not just an optional extra, but one of the measures that helps us to help offenders to make better choices in their lives, reduce their risk of reoffending, and go some way towards repairing the damaged relationships experienced by victims and the wider community as a consequence of offending behaviour.




As one example of what I have just said, I want to point to an excellent article in the current edition of the European Journal of Probation, by David Cross. In the article, Cross points out that while it is justifiable to reduce certain rights of those convicted of criminal offences - for example their liberty, when they are imprisoned - there are certain basic rights which cannot and should not be taken away. He goes on to argue that our approach to human rights with offenders should be less about the formal and restricted protection of human rights, and more about the promotion of such rights in their broadest sense as a means to support offender reintegration and desistance from crime. It is important to realise that “an ethical approach, focused on human rights and dignity, is more likely to be successful in achieving goals such as rehabilitation or public protection,” as Cross points out.



Cross, in his article, also argues that the human rights and desistance approaches to work with offenders can converge in how we practice, and that there are common themes - identified here in this slide - between the human rights approach and the desistance framework. These relate specifically to the individual journey in the context of key relationships, empowerment and self- determination, the need to develop human and social capital in offenders, and to use language that enhances human dignity. Cross concludes that: “an approach that incorporates both human rights and desistance principles can help to balance the legal requirement for  objective fairness  with the rehabilitative requirement to meet subjective need. The human rights contribution can facilitate an equal focus on the rights of offenders, of victims and potential victims, and of the wider community.”



So, this may all sound a bit hard to achieve, and perhaps even like pie-in-the-sky to you, and understandably so. Undoubtedly, there are challenges to be faced in implementing a human rights approach, particularly in work with offenders. Human rights, while frequently or generally accepted in principle by all or most of us, cannot be taken for granted. The issue requires constant attention and energy. That is why an event such as today is so important, and I look forward to the opportunity to discuss and debate some of the issues involved. There always has been, and always will be, for those of us working in the criminal justice system, including probation staff, the need to balance care and control, and different individual needs and rights. There can also be a perception of taking sides, of one stakeholder benefitting over, or to the disadvantage of another. That does not have to be the case. And ultimately, respecting the human rights of all, helps us to be successful in our task of offender rehabilitation, and our goal of safer communities.




I have tried to make the point that the issue of human rights and the goals of probation are completely compatible, particularly in the sense that they mutually help the agenda of Public Safety and encouraging desistance from crime. I also acknowledge however, that this can frequently be a challenge, a difficult tight-rope to walk. Specifically, I have suggested that implementing human rights contributes to achieving desistance from crime, while acknowledging the rights of all. As David Cross, in his recent article, points out, we cannot advocate for the rights of one over the other and expect to have a completely effective outcome. Neither is human rights a zero sum game, where if I win, you lose. Implementation of human rights must and does benefit all in the long run and I hope that will be one of the lessons from todays conference.





For all of these reasons, I am delighted to be here today and for the Probation Service to partner the Incorporated Law Society in having this important discussion on human rights of offenders, and related issues. We will hear today from a range of excellent and experienced presenters. They will set out the issues far better and more eloquently than I can. While they may come from different perspectives, I suggest all such points of view and experience need to be heard and taken into account, to ensure the human rights and wellbeing of all, and the creation of safer, fairer and more inclusive communities in the future.



Thank you